The atoms family

For years, Israel was the only country in the entire
Middle East with a nuclear program. That’s about to
change. The list of Arab states that are actively
pursuing nuclear power, or seriously considering doing
so, is a long one: Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan,
Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia,
Yemen and the seven sheikhdoms of the United Arab
Emirates.

Contracts have been signed, huge sums have been
invested and work is under way in several instances.
As if the thought of nuclear power in the hands of
Iran wasn’t worrisome enough, pan-Arab nuclear power
is as real a prospect as ever.

Is this bad news for the Jewish state, which for some
four decades has enjoyed uncontested strategic
deterrence thanks to its assumed nuclear weapons
stockpile? Does it signal a dangerous escalation of
nuclear threats for the entire region?

Is it, on the contrary, a sign of progress for
governments that for far too long have failed to offer
their people the technological and financial
development they need? Or is it, typically, grandiose
promises on which regional leaders are unlikely to
deliver?

There are enough indications to suspect all of the
above.

Even more so than in North America and Europe, where
hundreds of nuclear power plants have been the focus
of heated public debate since shortly after World War
II, the issue of atomic energy becomes particularly
thorny in the supercharged milieu of the Middle East.

On one hand, an increase in the use of nuclear energy
could lead to a decline in the use of petroleum, which
would mean downgrading ‘the oil weapon’ – a boon to
Israel and all those wary of the power that oil brings
to Arab regimes.

On the other hand, nuclear power could also lead to
weapons programs that would upset a very fragile
strategic balance in the region.

Now, with a very wary Israel watching, Arab states are
trying to walk a tightrope that will allow them to
solve their dire energy needs, and at the same time
provide a viable nuclear defensive capability without
antagonizing Iran, Israel or the US.

THE MOST innocent motive for Arab states’ desire for
nuclear power is an energy situation bordering on
crisis. Most of these countries are growing rapidly,
with demands on their electric grids growing just as
quickly. As it is, many of them generate too little
electricity for current needs, not to mention the huge
leap in demand expected over the next 20-30 years.

Jordan, for example, which produces no oil and imports
80 percent of its natural gas, must import more than
550 million kilowatt-hours of electricity per year
just to keep pace with current demands. If the
kingdom’s economy is to continue growing to alleviate
the more than 15% unemployment rate, it will require
vast amounts of energy – and fast.

Where doubts about the rush to go nuclear begin to
creep in, however, is in the choice of nuclear energy
over alternatives, especially when some of the
countries choosing the nuclear path are among the
world’s wealthiest in terms of oil and natural gas.

‘I think one would have to wonder about the need of
some states for nuclear power given their own energy
resources,’ US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
said in response to a recent conference in which Saudi
Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council announced
their keen interest in developing nuclear energy.
‘It’s one thing for a state to be running out of
natural gas in 34 years, which is the case of Egypt.
It is quite another for the state to be the most
oil-rich state in the world.’

Egypt derives a huge amount of its electricity from
hydroelectricity via the Aswan High Dam project, is an
exporter of both oil and natural gas and has huge
areas well suited for solar power. Kuwait, with proven
oil reserves of nearly 100 billion barrels, produces
three billion kWh more than it needs each year. Do
countries like these really need nuclear power to
create electricity and desalinate water?

‘Isn’t that where Iran is headed?’ John Pike asks
sarcastically.

‘For Israel,’ says Pike, director of
globalsecurity.org who testifies before Congress
regularly on a range of security issues including
nuclear proliferation, ‘the obvious concern is being
surrounded by hostile states with nuclear weapons.
You’re talking about states that have not been models
of political stability. You might be able to barely
tolerate a nuclear-armed Egypt, or a nuclear-armed
House of Saud, which is risk-averse. But who knows
what kind of people might be running those places 20
years down the road? The risk of a miscalculation is
always there, as is the possibility of weapons getting
loose… You look at this and you say, this is just
not a good picture.’

Remarking on the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons,
Gideon Frank, the deputy board chairman of the Israel
Atomic Energy Commission, delivered a warning to the
international community last month. ‘We can hardly
remain oblivious,’ he said, ‘to intensive efforts by
some in our region to develop weapons of mass
destruction and their means of delivery, accompanied
by sustained denial of the very legitimacy of our
sovereign existence and calls for our destruction.’

With Israel taking a vigilant stance vis-ˆ-vis
Teheran’s nuclear ambitions – and with a purported air
strike last month on what foreign sources are saying
was a nuclear facility in northeastern Syria – why
would Arab states risk breaking the nuclear status
quo?

Pike, agreeing with most observers, says Iran is the
main reason that Arab regimes have suddenly become so
intrigued by the atom. ‘It doesn’t take a rocket
scientist to connect the dots,’ he says. ‘If Iran is
going to go nuclear, its neighbors don’t want to be
left behind.’

For years, analysts said Israel’s assumed nuclear
weapons program would spur its neighbors to develop
weapons programs of their own. Ironically, though,
Israel will not be the cause of a nuclear arms race in
the Middle East.

‘Israel’s program was accepted as an accomplished fact
some time ago, when the hurdles to acquiring nuclear
capability looked a lot higher than they do now,’
notes Pike. ‘But in the past 10 years or so, we’ve
seen India, Pakistan and North Korea join the club.
Now, it seems, everybody’s doing it. Israel made the
transition at a time when international norms were
tending against nuclear proliferation. The opposite is
true now.’

As Jordan’s King Abdullah II has said, ‘The rules have
changed. Everybody’s going for nuclear programs.’

FOR MANY Arab governments, though, the physical threat
from Iran is not as great as the symbolic power of its
nuclear program.

According to Gawdat Baghat, an Egyptian scholar who
heads the Political Affairs Department at Indiana
University, prestige is at least as much a motive as
security.

Several years ago, he notes, Egyptian President Hosni
Mubarak said a nuclear program would be a waste of
money. This was the continuation of a long-standing
policy of refraining from a costly game of catch-up
with Israel on the nuclear plane, but also the
practical outcome of a wealth of natural resources.
Times have changed, though, as have Mubarak’s domestic
obligations.

‘With all its natural gas, Egypt doesn’t really need
nuclear energy very badly right now,’ Baghat says.
‘But when you see that [Iranian President Mahmoud]
Ahmadinejad keeps growing more popular all over the
Middle East, and that a major reason for this is his
insistence on becoming a nuclear power, you see just
how prestigious this is, how much it is a symbol of
scientific progress. Mubarak, like other Arab leaders,
has to show his people that he is in the race.’

Egyptians, he says, feel they are the undisputed
leaders of the Middle East. So it makes the country’s
leadership uncomfortable that Iran, their competitor
for hegemony in the region, is moving ahead of them.

This, Baghat adds, is worse than the fact that Israel
has had nuclear reactors operating since the early
1960s.

‘When Iran makes progress,’ he says, ‘it is different
than Israel doing so. It might sound funny, but I
think of it this way: When somebody you are not very
close to becomes rich and buys an expensive car, it
doesn’t mean much to you. But if your cousin does the
same thing, it gets under your skin.’

Realistically, some of the countries expressing
interest in nuclear power may not be able to see such
an ambitious, and costly, project through.

In Yemen – an impoverished, barren country ranked one
of the three most corrupt nations in the world in the
recent Transparency International survey – citizens
openly mock the promise of President Ali Abdullah
Saleh to bring nuclear energy to the country,
according to regional reports.

‘I do not believe,’ says Baghat, ‘that most Arab
countries have the technical infrastructure, financial
resources or human resources to build a nuclear
weapons program. Furthermore, there are strategic
reasons for them not to do so.’

BAGHAT, WHO has written extensively on why Arab
states, over the past 40-50 years, have chosen to
either pursue or abandon nuclear weapons, notes: ‘The
main reason why they try to start weapons programs is
security. And right now, there is no security threat.’
Despite Iran’s aggressive push toward nuclear weapons
and its attempts to spread its Shi’ite revolution,
Baghat believes Teheran is not likely to go to war
against its Muslim neighbors. So, he says, the Sunni
states most capable of funding a nuclear weapons
program are also the least likely to do so.

‘There are only five major regional powers: Israel,
Iran, Turkey, Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Turkey is a
member of NATO, so it does not need nuclear weapons.
Saudi Arabia has very strong security ties with the
US. The Saudis know that, if they faced any real
threat, the US would come to their aid.’

That leaves Egypt, which, Baghat points out, ‘depends
very much on US foreign aid. Since [Anwar] Sadat went
to Israel in 1977, Egypt has been the second-largest
recipient of American foreign aid. Without it, Egypt
would collapse.’

If the US were to discover that any of those three
countries was using its civilian nuclear program to
make weapons, Baghat says, they would ‘pay a very high
price. There is no reason for them to antagonize the
US.’

To be fair, he notes, ‘we can never be 100% sure.
These are not very democratic countries, and there is
always a possibility that a madman could come to
power. So to be on the safe side, there must be tight
supervision from the International Atomic Energy
Agency.’

Similarly, Pike says, ‘Does Israel need to worry about
its neighbors having purely peaceful programs? No. But
anybody who thinks that Iran’s program is entirely
peaceful hasn’t been paying attention. And anybody who
thinks that a nuclear desalination project [in an Arab
country] is going to balance Iran’s weapons capability
hasn’t been outside recently.’

The first commercial nuclear power plants in the Arab
world won’t be finished for eight years at least. In
that time, presumably, the Iran situation will come to
some sort of conclusion, and convince Arab leaders
about the direction in which to take their nuclear
programs. The coming years will be full of no small
amount of nail-biting in Israel as well, Pike
predicts.

‘You would have to be concerned,’ he says, ‘that the
reason some of these countries have been talking about
nuclear power is that the leaders of these countries
had called in their military and industrial advisers
and said, ‘If we had to get weapons, what would it
take?’ Because, rest assured, they have all done that.
There’s not a country in the region that hasn’t had to
weigh its options.’

(BOX #1) Atoms in Arabia

Egypt

Egypt’s nuclear program has taken a roller coaster-
like course. It began peacefully in the late 1950s,
with American and Russian support for a small research
reactor; turned aggressive shortly thereafter, with
(failed) attempts to purchase weapons for use against
Israel; was frozen after the Chernobyl disaster in
1986; was revived a few years later with help from
Argentina, which built a 22- megawatt research reactor
at Inshas; and is now being revolutionized with the
launch of plans for three reactors of up to 3,000 MW
total capacity at Al-Daba. The first plant, Egypt’s
energy minister claims, will be ready in a decade.

Jordan

Only a few weeks ago, Jordan and the United States
signed an accord supporting the Hashemite kingdom’s
development of nuclear power. Under the agreement,
‘the two countries will work together to develop
requirements for appropriate power reactors, fuel
service arrangements, civilian training, nuclear
safety, energy technology and other related areas,’
the US Embassy in Amman said in a statement.

In addition to desalinating water, nuclear power would
bring a much-needed energy boost to Jordan, which
imports all its oil and almost 80 percent of its
natural gas. Conversely, the country has an estimated
80,000 tons of uranium available to be mined, and
Jordanian officials aim to see nuclear energy produce
30 percent of the country’s energy by 2030 and convert
the kingdom into an energy exporter.

Syria

A year ago, President Bashar Assad asserted that his
country had no intention of becoming a nuclear power.
But in recent months, Syrian officials have sung a
different tune, saying that the nuclear option could
not be rejected, or even that it was ‘in our sights.’
The country’s energy needs are increasing, while the
industrial infrastructure is growing less and less
efficient all the time.

Over the past few years, Israeli sources have
expressed concern that Syria had been trying to obtain
nuclear weapons from the rogue Pakistani nuclear
regime. Last month, in a still-murky incident over
eastern Syria, Israeli warplanes were alleged to have
targeted what may have been a nuclear facility
developed with the help of fellow ‘Axis of Evil’
member North Korea.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi officials have been laying the groundwork for a
nuclear program over the past year, making public
statements about the right of all states to peaceful
nuclear power and holding meetings with neighbors on
the importance of investing in nuclear power.

Some analysts claim that the Saudis have tried to
purchase nuclear weapons from China. Publicly,
however, Saudi Arabia is lobbying for a Middle East
free of nuclear weapons.

Gulf states

The five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council
– Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab
Emirates (in addition to Saudi Arabia) – have closely
followed the Saudis’ lead on nuclear energy, investing
billions of dollars to pave the way for power plants
and pledging entirely peaceful motives. The small
Persian Gulf states are said to be extremely concerned
by Iran’s nuclear program, which is considered at
least as much a factor in their interest in atomic
energy as the development that such electricity would
allow.

Ironically, Iran has offered the GCC its help in
developing nuclear technology.

Yemen

A little over a week ago, Yemen signed a deal with an
American energy company to build a number of nuclear
power plants over the next 10 years, designed to
produce 5,000 megawatts of electricity. The country’s
oil production has dropped from 480,000 barrels a day
a few years ago to a current level of 330,000 barrels
a day.

Algeria

Algeria is eager to make use of its uranium deposits,
which are estimated to be the 10th largest in the
world, to create a nuclear industry that can provide
domestic power as well as generate lucrative exports.

In January, Algeria signed a cooperation agreement
with Russia to build a reactor and train personnel to
run it. France has also offered to cooperate on a
nuclear project with Algeria, which is trying to
promote the idea of a ‘Mediterranean Union’ between
southern Europe and North Africa.

Tunisia

France agreed last December to help Tunisia develop
nuclear power and desalination capabilities, although
such a program still appears far off for the
resource-poor country.

(BOX #2) Is Israel next?

Like the Arab states now weighing the benefits of
nuclear power, Israel is interested in increasing its
electricity production to meet burgeoning demand. From
1990 to 2000, the country’s electricity requirements
increased an average of 7 percent. In the next 20
years, the National Infrastructure Ministry estimates,
Israel will need to provide twice the amount of
electricity used today – already in excess of 47
billion kilowatt-hours per year.

Powering today’s electricity are billions of shekels
worth of coal, crude oil and natural gas, which must
be imported. That means a combination of total
dependence on foreign sources, high costs and
environmental problems, all of which the government
would like to relieve rather than exacerbate.

In August, National Infrastructure Minister Binyamin
Ben-Eliezer strongly suggested that nuclear power
could be the answer, saying the country was reviving
20-year-old plans for a nuclear power plant in the
Negev and that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert supported
such plans.

‘The government of Israel is to make a historic
decision concerning the building of a nuclear power
plant… in the Negev,’ Ben-Eliezer was quoted as
saying. ‘Given the conditions that have surrounded
Israel from the day it was created and its unique
geopolitical situation, I believe it is not enough to
rely on energy production through conventional means.’
Certainly, Israel’s ‘unique geopolitical situation’
would become even more complex if its neighbors
started building nuclear reactors. That this
possibility made the government’s interest in nuclear
energy an urgent matter was confirmed by Gideon Frank,
chairman of the board of the Israel Atomic Energy
Commission, the country’s highest civilian nuclear
authority, who said as much during an international
conference in Vienna two weeks ago.

Referring to Iran’s nuclear program, Frank told the
members of the International Atomic Energy Commission
that the world body had allowed ‘gross and consistent
non- compliance’ from Teheran, and that Israel ‘can
hardly remain oblivious to intensive efforts by some
in our region to develop weapons of mass destruction
and their means of delivery, accompanied by sustained
denial of the very legitimacy of our sovereign
existence and calls for our destruction.’

Even though the remarks were indirect, the suggestion
that Israel would build a nuclear power plant in
response to Iran’s assumed ambitions to obtain nuclear
weapons confirmed the inevitable connection between
civilian and military nuclear programs.

For Israel, that means some tough questions – about
any nuclear facility to be built in the future, and
about the country’s existing facilities as well.

DESPITE HAVING one of the world’s most controversial
nuclear programs, Israel does not have a nuclear power
plant. Whether or not the infamous nuclear facilities
in Dimona are producing nuclear weapons, as the rest
of the world and most Israelis assume, one thing is
clear: It does not produce electricity for our homes.
But because, according to foreign reports, it is
assumed to be used for the manufacture of
weapons-grade plutonium, and because Israel has not
ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT),
it may not receive materials from the Nuclear
Suppliers Group that would allow it to build a nuclear
power plant.

In the past few weeks, officials have been lobbying
for exemptions to those restrictions, hoping the
nuclear development deal that the US recently signed
with India – another country that is not a party to
the NPT but has nuclear weapons – will serve as a
precedent in Israel’s favor.

Considering that there seems to be a consensus among
NSG states against allowing Israel to import nuclear
material, even limited exemptions to the
non-proliferation rules will be difficult to achieve.
But the government is taking its request a step
further: While officials say they would open up any
future nuclear power plant to international
inspectors, as required, they would not do the same
for the Dimona reactor.

Israel, an Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told
The Jerusalem Post, is stressing that it has been
‘responsible’ with its nuclear program since its
establishment in the 1950s, and hoping that this will
be enough to convince the NSG that Israel poses no
threat to regional security.

How safe, though, are the country’s existing nuclear
facilities?

To begin with, both the Dimona reactor and the much
smaller research reactor at Nahal Sorek south of
Rishon Lezion are powered by highly-enriched uranium
(HEU). There are about 100 more HEU-type research
reactors around the world, but many of them are being
converted to low-enriched uranium systems because HEU,
being a few steps closer to weapons-grade material, is
considered a proliferation threat.

The Nahal Sorek reactor, which was donated by the US
in 1958 as part of the ‘Atoms for Peace’ program,
conducts medical radioactivity experiments and other
highly advanced research. It is open not only to
international inspections, but to tour groups as well.
The Dimona facility, which is not only closed to
inspection but kept highly guarded from all public
discourse, hosts a national radioactive waste disposal
site where radioactive waste from hospitals, research
institutions, higher education facilities and
factories is stored. Fears that the facility, built
clandestinely nearly 50 years ago, was a threat in
itself were heightened three years ago when
authorities distributed Lugol iodine tablets to
residents of cities and Beduin encampments around
Dimona, in case of an accidental radiation leak.

An Atomic Energy Commission spokeswoman told the Post
that any fears over the safety of either the Sorek or
Dimona reactors are unwarranted.

‘Age is not an issue with these facilities,’ she said.
‘The reactors have been refurbished and upgraded
several times over the years. In effect, these are not
the same reactors that were installed nearly 50 years
ago.’

Regardless, questions about Israel’s nuclear program
are likely to increase dramatically – whether because
of the development of Arab reactors or because of
concerns over a civilian power plant in the desert.
Five decades after Israel became the first nuclear
power in the Middle East, the long-standing status quo
is sure to change as the country’s ‘unique
geopolitical situation’ changes dramatically.

(BOX #3) Pros, cons and alternatives

Advocates and opponents alike can be fanatical in
their positions on nuclear energy. Complicating
matters for policy-makers is that both sides make
valid arguments. Worse still, none of the available
alternatives to nuclear power and conventional fossil
fuel-driven power has yet proven capable of producing
energy on a large enough scale to supersede these
options for the near future.

Pros:

The two biggest benefits of nuclear energy are its low
cost and its cleanliness relative to coal, oil and
gas- powered energy plants.

A nuclear plant generates power in much the same way
as most of those old-style plants – by creating steam
that spins a turbine – but it does so in a much more
efficient manner. The cost of nuclear fuel is also
much lower than the cost of coal or oil, and even
lower than natural gas. The combination of high
operating efficiency and low materials cost is,
understandably, attractive to governments.

Also, nuclear power plants don’t produce the carbon
dioxide and other greenhouse gases that fossil
fuel-driven power plants produce. As more countries
make environmental concerns a larger factor in their
energy plans – and as countries committed to the Kyoto
protocols seek ways to avoid pollution penalties –
that ‘eco-friendly’ benefit becomes extremely
enticing.

Despite some notorious exceptions, the safety record
of nuclear power facilities is also much better than
that of their conventional cousins.

Cons:

Due to their intricate and potentially volatile
design, nuclear power plants are much more expensive
and often take much longer to build than standard
power plants. Also, nuclear foes claim, the lower cost
of electricity produced by nuclear plants is achieved
in part by subsidies and government funding that is
generally not included in the calculation of this
cost. So the total savings are, arguably, minimal.

Opponents also contend that nuclear energy is not, in
fact, better for the environment. In addition to the
danger of a catastrophe, such as the infamous
Chernobyl disaster, there is the problem of
radioactive waste, the byproduct of nuclear energy.
Both in enriching uranium for fuel, and in the nuclear
fission process that ultimately results in
electricity, extraordinarily dangerous waste products
are created. Because of the complexity of storage
needs for nuclear waste – some of the waste products
remain radioactive for thousands of years – finding
localities willing to host storage facilities can be a
daunting task.

Of course, there is also the danger of a peaceful
nuclear program leading to a weapons program.

Alternatives:

None of the available alternatives to the current
energy systems offers a perfect solution.

Wind power creates no waste products, but requires a
large area and provides energy in unstable quantities.
Hydroelectric power is extremely efficient and very
‘clean,’ but it is nonetheless limited by its
environmental impact and by the fact that it can only
be used in areas with large flowing water systems.

Geothermal power may be an elegant solution harnessing
natural steam vents, but it can only be realized in a
small number of locations.

With free fuel (sunlight), no resulting pollutants and
increasing efficiency, solar power is as close to a
perfect power source as is available today. Until
solar energy can be stored cheaply and in a relatively
small area, though, it will not be an economically
viable option for more than a fraction of a country’s
electricity demands.

While some or all of these alternatives are relevant
choices for the Arab states currently weighing nuclear
power, they are unlikely to fully meet the growing
electricity demands of those states.

(BOX #4) Europe is split over nuclear energy

Calder Hall crumbled in seconds. Once symbols of
progress and might for a nation focused on the future,
the four lofty cooling towers at Sellafield, England,
were demolished on Saturday after becoming instead a
symbol of decay.

Fifty-one years after the world’s first commercial
civil nuclear power plant was constructed, the
continent that has embraced nuclear energy the most is
also the one that is relegating the technology to
history.

There are more than 440 nuclear power plants around
the globe, supplying about 16% of the world’s energy.
The highest number of plants is in the United States,
where in certain states nuclear energy is an
increasingly popular choice. But the countries that
rely most heavily on nuclear energy – France,
Lithuania, Belgium, etc. – are in Europe.

The continent, however, is increasingly divided by an
all-or-nothing attitude. In Europe, it seems,
countries are either feverishly building new power
plants, or furiously tearing them down. Some
countries, like England, are doing both, replacing
older facilities that are no longer safe or efficient
with newer models.

For years after the initial surge of interest in
nuclear energy, when the atomic age promised endless
bounty at minimal cost, countries lost interest in
nuclear power as environmental concerns took
prominence. Then, in 2002, Finland’s parliament made
the first decision to build a new nuclear power plant
in Western Europe for more than a decade.

Ireland at first fell in love with the idea of nuclear
energy, moving in 1968 to build a power plant.
Thirteen years later, though, having fallen out of
love with the idea, the Irish dropped those plans.
Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden,
meanwhile, have all decided not to build new plants,
or intend to phase out nuclear power altogether.
Austria has not only stamped out any domestic nuclear
development but also seeks to ensure that none of its
neighbors will build nuclear power plants near its
border.

Italy has taken the hardest line of all against
nuclear power. Shortly after the explosion of Reactor
No. 4 at Chernobyl sent radioactive fallout across
Ukraine, Belarus and Russia in 1986, Italy voted to
scrap its four nuclear reactors, completing the hasty
shut-downs by 1990. Since then, however, Italy has had
to import energy – produced by nuclear plants, no less
– and seen its energy costs skyrocket.

The Netherlands moved to shut down its reactors, but a
few years later a new government put that on hold. In
Poland, construction of four nuclear power plants was
halted halfway through; now, after investing in
Lithuania’s nuclear power program, the country intends
to built a plant of its own within the next 15 years.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, France, insisting
on self-sufficiency in energy despite lacking the
natural resources to accomplish it, has adopted
nuclear power so strongly that it derives 78 percent
of its energy from nuclear plants.

The position of Europe on nuclear energy, then, is not
merely ambiguous, it is downright torn. Only time will
tell whether Middle East countries, enamored with
nuclear power as they are at the moment, will be as
excited about their nuclear plans in the future as
they are now.

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